Change Is in the Wind

Santa Barbara County Considers Harvesting Wind

Thursday, February 1, 2007
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There’s a new agricultural crop coming to Santa Barbara County: Wind.

A wind development corporation is planning to erect 60 to 80 large wind turbines on a windy ridge south of Lompoc. These turbines would produce between 80 million and 120 million watts of peak power. Taking into account the intermittent nature of wind, this energy output is equivalent to about 350 million kilowatt-hours annually — enough to satisfy the annual electric needs of about 40,000 homes.

The turbines would be sited on land owned by families who have been farming and ranching in our county for generations. Their willingness to enter into an agreement with the developer, and Southern California Edison’s willingness to purchase the electricity under the terms of a long-term power purchase agreement, make the project a win-win situation for all the cooperating parties. It’s also a huge win for all of us living in Santa Barbara County who care about emissions, global warming, and an energy future using significant renewable resources.

Wind development is growing nationally and internationally. At last count, there were 11,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity in the U.S. This $15 billion investment produces enough electricity to power more than 4 million homes. Texas has the most installed wind capacity, followed by California, Iowa, and Minnesota.

Modern wind turbines are much more powerful than the first generation of machines installed at Altamont Pass. Today’s generators are more than 250 feet tall with blades 160 feet from hub to tip. Even in strong winds, the blades turn only 15 times per minute. This virtually eliminates threats to birds and reduces nearby noise to a low hum. The Audubon Society has wholeheartedly endorsed wind power, pointing out that birds are 10,000 times more likely to perish from other human causes.

While it’s true that wind is intermittent, careful technical studies conducted by electric utilities have shown the utility grid can easily absorb a 25 percent share of wind generation with no loss in reliability or stability. Very accurate wind forecasts can be made one day ahead. This gives utilities the means of scheduling their use of wind-generated electricity, the same way they do for power-plant outages, high air conditioning loads, and generator maintenance. When the wind generators are operating, the utility can reduce its gas turbine operations or curtail its power purchases from other power producers using conventional energy sources. On calm days, the utility can obtain power from these same sources.

When wind generation is dispersed throughout a large region, calm weather in one location is generally balanced by windy weather elsewhere. And since the turbines are sited on the most favorable locations, maximum wind is harvested by design.

When carefully sited, modern wind turbines produce 40 to 45 percent of their maximum rated power annually. Most other energy sources also produce far less than their theoretical annual output. Solar cells don’t operate at night. Nuclear plants are often shut down for months for maintenance or repair. Gas turbine electric plants may operate only 10 to 25 percent of the time. Hydroelectric plants are captive to snow melt. While no energy source offers a totally free lunch, wind’s benefits far outweigh its costs.

Wind generators usually replace natural gas turbines in the regional electric generation mix. The gas turbines’ main emissions are carbon dioxide and water vapor. Carbon dioxide is the most significant greenhouse gas. Wind turbines produce no emissions whatsoever. It’s a terrific deal: Wind energy is non-polluting, and the wind isn’t likely to stop blowing during the 20-plus year lifespan of the development.

Solar panels would have to be installed on 40,000 homes to produce a comparable amount of green electricity. Realistically, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon in Santa Barbara County. With good logistical support, 100 wind turbines can be erected in about four months (after permits are issued). Wind generation is a mature multibillion-dollar industry in the U.S. and there are construction firms who specialize in this kind of work. Clipper Wind, one of America’s premier wind generator companies, is located in Carpinteria.

While wind isn’t the only answer to the problems of global warming and our reliance on imported petroleum, it’s a major part of the solution. The farmers with the windy ridge are doing all of us a huge favor. We should embrace and encourage this beneficial technology. It’s time to welcome the sight of wind turbines spinning slowly on the horizon.

For more information, visit the Web site of the American Wind Energy Association at

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